Nigeria: Labour Is a Governing Party Worldwide – Can Obi Make It So in Nigeria?

Labour Party is a recognisable brand all over the world. Since the British Labour Party was founded in 1900, forming its first government in 1924, Labour parties have been established political parties across the world, becoming the governing party in several countries. For instance, Labour is the governing party in Australia and New Zealand. Here, in Nigeria, the Labour Party produced a state governor in 2007 when Dr Olusegun Mimiko, its candidate, was elected Governor of Ondo State. Yet, something potentially transformational is happening. Or, so it seems.

In May this year, former Governor Peter Obi joined the Labour Party and became its presidential candidate. Since then, with the emergence of the mass based “Obidient” movement, the party’s profile has risen stratospherically. This has prompted views that the Labour Party could win next year’s presidential election or cause a significant upset to trigger a rerun. But can Obi make Labour a governing party in Nigeria?

Well, first, there’s an important distinction between Labour Party in Nigeria and Labour parties around the world. Elsewhere, Labour parties attract politicians, and field candidates in elections, who believe strongly in their ideology and values; in Nigeria, the Labour Party is seen and used as a mere vehicle to gain political power by politicians who are disillusioned with the established parties.

Take Dr Mimiko. Before he ran for governor as a Labour Party candidate in 2007, he was a minister in President Olusegun Obasanjo’s government led by the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP. After the PDP thwarted his attempt to run against Dr Olusegun Agagu, the then incumbent PDP governor in the state, Mimiko joined the Labour Party and turned it into an election winning machine in Ondo State. He became a two-term governor under the party.

Similarly, disenchantment forced Obi to leave the PDP and join the Labour Party on May 27. Barely three days later, on May 30, he clinched the party’s presidential ticket. Given those circumstances, hardly anyone would describe Obi as a Labourite, a term used for an adherent of Labour party. What one can say is that the Labour Party gave Obi its platform to actualise his presidential ambition, although a true symbiosis can emerge between them.

Yet, truth be told, Labour Party’s origins are so ideologically grounded that it should not be a mere vehicle to gain power. In his seminal book, The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi described how the social devastation of the 19th century, caused by laissez-faire capitalism, led to the emergence of trade unions, which later established the British Labour Party in 1900 to represent the interests and needs of the working class. Put simply, Labour party has its origins in the countermove to resist the exploitation of workers by the landed and trading classes.

Ironically, as a billionaire trader, Obi belongs to the trading classes that traditionally have little in common with the interventionist ethos of the leftist Labour Party. For instance, as a trader, Obi should instinctively believe in free trade and globalisation, and the primacy of private enterprise. Yet, the Labour Party says it “shall ensure activist developmental role of the state in the economy in being a major player in the strategic sectors of the economy” and would adopt “a cautious and step approach” to globalisation and liberalisation.

So far, Obi hasn’t published his manifesto as the Labour Party’s presidential candidate. But I would be surprised if he campaigns on an interventionist or protectionist agenda. I suspect the relationship between Obi and the Labour Party would be akin to that between Tony Blair and the British Labour Party. It was Blair who transformed the Labour Party from a statist, interventionist party into a market-friendly and pro-middle class party that became electable after nearly two decades of consecutive electoral defeats. So, we must wait to see the Obi/Labour Party manifesto.

That said, Obi’s “consumption to production” mantra should appeal to everyone. First, producing nations accumulate wealth at the expense of consuming nations; so, Nigeria must be a producing nation. Second, production is the main source of economic growth; so, focusing on production will create jobs. Which is why any Labour party should support the productive sectors of the economy, such as manufacturing, because they are the routes to economic growth and high employment.

But production is not enough. You can have economic growth and still have poverty and inequality. This can happen when there’s a concentration of wealth in few hands and when labour’s share of the national income is small due to low productivity. Both the accumulation and concentration of wealth, including unexplained wealth, and income inequality, are prevalent in Nigeria. But both are incompatible with social justice, fundamental in modern democratic societies and a major concern of all social democratic parties.

So, as Labour Party’s presidential candidate, Obi can’t just talk about production, he must address social justice issues, particularly inequality. Of course, income inequality is largely caused by low productivity and the solution lies in the diffusion of knowledge and skills. Surely, Obi and his educationist running-mate, Datti Baba-Ahmed, need robust educational, training and skills-acquisition policies to support their pro-production agenda. With a robust economic and social agenda, coupled with a credible commitment to restructure Nigeria and tackle insecurity, the Labour Party under Obi and Baba-Ahmed would look like a party of government.

That said, the structure of party competition in Nigeria is such that a third force will struggle to dislodge either of the two main parties. Yet, APC and PDP are such irredeemable parties of vested interests that any other party that sets out a credible agenda that serves the general interest, the national interest, deserves to win next year. So, first, Obi must craft a robust and credible programme of government. Second, he must actively canvass for votes across Nigeria, wooing women and youth, critical voting demographics, and ensuring his “Obidient” supporters actually vote. That way, he might make Labour Nigeria’s next governing party.

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